One man’s search for meaning

Tuesday, July 16, 2013
John Holton

Writing a weekly newspaper column is at once the most joyful and the most challenging gig your average scribbler can hope for.

Joyful, because it comes with a readership and, let’s face it, every writer wants to be read. Short of being a bestselling author, there are few more privileged positions than being given a blank page each week and paid to fill it.

The challenge, of course, is the relentless nature of the deadline. No sooner do you hit the send button on one week’s column, than you’re thinking about the one to come, wondering, indeed, if you have another in you. There’s often that nagging feeling that the piece you’ve just written could be the last; that the creative well might dry up.

Nikki Gemmel, who writes a weekly column in The Weekend Australian Magazine and pens the most beautiful prose, wrote in an email to me that every Sunday evening when she starts thinking about the next week’s column she gets a sick, nervous feeling in her stomach. So, for even the most celebrated writers out there, it’s a tough gig. That was reassuring for me.

I’m lucky there are no parameters when it comes to subject matter. My column has the wonderfully obscure title Between Here and Home, which gives me licence to take the writing in all kinds of directions. One week I can be writing about an epiphany in the fruit and veg section of my local supermarket, the next about mankind’s search for intelligent life in the universe. It can be as local or as global as I choose, and with such broad scope I don’t tend to suffer writer’s block.

I remember asking long-time columnist for The Age and Herald Sun, Barry Dickins, where he got his ideas from, how he was able to write such insightful, moving columns week after week, year after year. “Writer’s block is a myth,” he told me.“The thing you are doing right now could be your next column. Buying an avocado can be a life-altering experience. Every person you pass in the street is a walking storyboard….” I often think about that if I’m having an ‘off’ week. I think back over the week just gone and ponder the big small moments.

More paralysing for me is the thought of who might be reading what I write. To think about the audience too much is a dangerous thing and can lead to self-censorship or a contrived piece of writing. My way around it is to imagine that only six people read my column. It’s become a bit of a running gag around town. I’ve had dozens of letters from readers claiming to be one of my six. It’s quite a special relationship you have with readers. I’ve written more than 100 columns over the past two-and-a-half years and, given the nature of what I write about, you can’t help but give away a lot of yourself.

I’ve had some wonderful interactions with readers over the years. After a column about tea drinkers feeling alienated in a coffee-centric world, a man called into the newspaper office and presented me with an antique Bendigo Pottery teapot.

A column about a resident butcher bird on our property prompted a flood of visitors sharing photographs of their own avian interlopers. Such responses give me the impetus to keep writing. Of course, not everyone’s a fan. I’ve upset some property developers, senior citizens and fundamental Christians along the way. Not everyone has an appreciation for irony.

My column means a hell of a lot to me. A weekly deadline can’t help but become a big part of your life, but it’s much more than that. The tagline for my new book Between Here and Home (a collection of 60 columns) is One man’s search for meaning in a tabloid world. It sums up what I try to do on the page each week. I love having the chance to write about things that newspapers aren’t that interested in. Things like love, hope and creativity. Journalism is so full of doubletalk and charming words, and people not saying what they mean. I think you get to a point in life where all of that rhetoric becomes tedious.

I’m much more interested in the small moments of joy – things that make me smile and wonder – what a friend of mine likes to call “goosebump moments”.

About John Holton

John Holton is a freelance writer, editor and publisher and the author of more than ten publications, including the award-winning short story collections, Snowdroppingand The Affairs of Men. He has been a feature writer, a creative writing teacher, a senior editor and advertising copywriter. More recently, he has built a reputation as a poet and publisher of handmade books including The Little Book of Nowhere, Cownessand A Thing I Cannot Name. His new book Between Here and Home: One man’s search for meaning in a tabloid worldwill be launched 28 July at the California Gully Mechanic’s Institute. John will also be a guest at the Bendigo Writers Festival, August 9-11. His approach to writing is best summed up by his favourite quote by American author and activist, Muriel Rukeyser: ‘The world is made of stories, not atoms.’ John’s columns appear every Tuesday in the Bendigo Advertiser.You can read them online on John's blog.